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Annapolis Ballerina Ponders Her Ultimate Pas De Deux: Life after Dancing

+ By Emily Karcher  Photos by Emily Karcher

In a basement ballet studio at the Dance Academy in Severna Park, Margaret Hannah stands with her hands on her hips, a black shawl tied around her waist, counting beats to piano music. On a white wall nearby, a decal spelling “dream” beckons through simple swirls and calligraphy. Hannah’s blue eyes peer into the studio mirrors, her brows a bit furrowed. “Tendu, plié, sous-sus!” she shouts to the intermediate/advanced class of adolescent girls behind her, all in pink tights, black leotards, and classic hair buns. Their legs equally lanky and muscular, they suck in their tummies, stretch their arms, and lift up onto their satin pointe shoes, all in unison. All with discipline, with focus, and with complete precision. Well, almost.

“They get so mad at themselves,” explains Hannah over coffee at 49 West on a bright morning in late June. Having recently retired as a professional dancer, her words are reflective. “It’s very hard to teach teenage girls not to show anything emotion-wise. It’s very hard for dancers because when they mess up, they want to stop and think about what they did. You sometimes have to rehearse how to keep going because that’s what you have to do on stage.”

Whether art imitates life, or vice versa may be a clichéd debate. But for Annapolis ballerina Margaret Hannah, who at 28 has traded the stability of a career as a professional dancer for the unpredictability of life as a college student, the art of composure is perhaps more relevant than ever.

“I didn’t want people to be like, ’Oh, Margaret, it’s time,’” she chuckles, mimicking a sideways whisper with a voice both lively and lyrical. Humility aside, she says the decision to retire was agonizing, admitting she could have gladly danced professionally for at least three more years.

Watching her port de bras in lead roles of Swan Lake, the Nutcracker, or her last performance in Sleeping Beauty, it might be hard to understand why Margaret Hannah would quit dancing when local companies were begging her to stay.

“I never wanted to retire on a bad note,” she says, while steam from her white coffee mug twirls around her finger nails, each painted with alternating blue and red polish for Independence Day. If Margaret Hannah would have allowed bad notes to dictate her dancing career, she would have quit before even discovering Annapolis. She would have surrendered to the burnout and weight struggles she experienced at a professional dance company in Arizona.

“My mom says ballet is the only thing I’ve ever been 100 percent sure about.”  She thought about quitting in Arizona, but at her mother’s suggestion, Hannah searched for a better fit. She found it at Annapolis’ Ballet Theatre of Maryland, and Hannah says, she immediately got the “fire” back for dancing professionally.

Hannah’s move to Annapolis was her debut into the city she now calls home, the city in which she says she has “grown up as an adult” since 2005. It’s the same city she has chosen for her wedding next year to fiance, Annapolis musician Tobias Russell.

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Hannah put on her first ballet slippers at the age of three, but became serious by age 10. In high school, she danced in festivals in Austria and Scotland. At 18, she put off college and left her close-knit family for a paycheck as a professional dancer at an Arizona dance company. Soon after, she joined the Ballet Theatre of Maryland, and most recently, she danced for Manassas Ballet Theatre in Virginia.

“The question all dancers have is, ‘What do you want to do after you finish dancing?’” she explains. “And I realized that my passion has slowly gone to teaching.”

For the decade Hannah has spent dancing during the day, her evenings have been spent teaching everyone from preschoolers to fellow professionals. In addition to her work at the Dance Academy, she also teaches at Bowie’s C&C Dance Company and offers private instruction for students traveling across the Beltway to train with her in hopes of going professional one day. Hannah’s goal in obtaining her bachelor’s degree through courses at both Anne Arundel Community College and ultimately at the University of Maryland, is to instruct at the high school and university levels so that, eventually, she can be home—rather than in a studio—at dinner time.

Dianna Cuatto, Artistic Director of Ballet Theatre of Maryland, says Hannah’s charisma is her greatest asset as an instructor. “She is one of those teachers who will inspire a new generation of dancers,” Cuatto says, stressing the importance of instructors who emphasize students’ attributes over weaknesses.

Watching Hannah is like a meditation as she stands in her grey leotard and tights in pointe shoes alongside her students at the barre, her shoulder-length auburn hair pulled back low. She demonstrates proper postures and piques with flushed cheeks and a stream of French commands, and in no way does it seem her retirement could mean an end to her dancing.

Hannah knows it might seem backwards to have gone professional before obtaining a degree, but it’s a step that Lynda Fitzgerald, head of Anne Arundel Community College’s dance department, says will benefit Hannah and her students. “The dance component is critical to be an effective teacher, and coming back to school is critical,” says Fitzgerald, a mentor and advisor to Hannah. “She’ll be able to relate to the dancers, and no degree can give you that experience.”

To Hannah, part of relating to her students means understanding every dancer’s unique battle with individual imperfections; first, admitting them and then striving to overshadow them. “It’s a beautiful challenge going to the studio every day and knowing that I don’t have perfect turnout, and then working towards something,” adds Hannah.

In this way, ballet serves as a life lesson, highlighting those things at which you excel and working on what needs improvement. But most of all, find contentment in the process because the process is the destination.

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